The Northern Lights aren’t the only luminaries coming out of Northern Canada. Yellowknife based band Digawolf has been performing together since 2010, singing in both English and local language Tłı̨chǫ, attempting to pass the latter on to the next generation. Band members Jesse James (otherwise known by his Tłı̨chǫ nickname “Diga”; wolf), on vocals and lead guitar, TJ Buggins, on bass, and David Dowe, on percussion, have joined forces to create a unique blend of indie rock that transcends both linguistic and cultural borders.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the band’s local roots in the Northwest Territories of the Canadian Arctic. A community as isolated as it is culturally diverse, Yellowknife has its own particularisms and flavour. As much as Digawolf is a band in conversation with its surrounding environment, it is also one seeking to represent a slice of the Canadian experience to an increasingly international audience.
Skilled masters in making traditional themes resonate for contemporary audiences, the band’s poetic verses and instrumental harmonies are especially evident in their recently released album, Great Northern Man. With summer tour plans on deck, we sat down with band members Jesse James and David Dowe to find out more about how their trailblazing sound is making fresh tracks up North. More than a band, consider Digawolf your guide to the Canadian Arctic.
Culture Stories: What’s the origin story of the band? How did you get together?
David Dowe: We met up through some of the open mic nights happening in Yellowknife. We were musicians playing around town, so we met up now and then and we just went from there. We appreciated what we did together and it just kind of jelled. So we decided to combine forces and it’s been really good. We’ve been able to compliment each other musically and read each other, especially live. It’s been pretty special.
CS: What’s the music scene like in Yellowknife?
Jesse James: It’s very small. It’s very intimate as well. You sort of know musicians which are far and inbetween. If you have a drummer or bass player, you’re guaranteed he’ll be playing with three or four other bands at the same time. People are multitasking.
David Dowe: We’re in a unique position. We’re trying to be promoted down South and we’re so far up North. If we were living in Toronto or wherever, you’re in an area where it’s easier to be in front of people. There’s thousands of people there, and thousands of musicians and bands. Whereas Yellowknife is a small area, not a lot bands, but everyone is so damn far away. It’s a different road, I guess.
CS: What does Digawolf actually mean? Is there any special meaning?
JJ: It started off quite a while ago. I went under the band name Diga, and when I was doing shows down South people would ask, what does that mean? I ended up always saying ‘Wolf’. When I was releasing a new album I decided to go under the name Digawolf so people would stop asking me, what does it mean? It didn’t work!
CS: One of your albums is called Nake De, which translates from Tłı̨chǫ as “Two Worlds”. Why is is important for you to mix together both traditional and contemporary themes in your music?
JJ: Well first and foremost language is really important. I think I would like to be seen as somebody who is trying to preserve the language in every means possible whether it be through art, translation, or music in our case. It’s one of those things where if you have something, you might as well share it. There’s no point in really hiding it.
DD: We play a very contemporary style of music, but once you add the language component to it, English and Tłı̨chǫ, it’s it’s own beast. It can appeal to a lot more people, I would hope, and bring them into the conversation.
CS: How many people are still speaking Tłı̨chǫ? Is it in danger of going away in one or two generations?
JJ: There’s only roughly 2200 people speaking the language. So in Yellowknife there’s around 20,000. The population for those who speak the language is rather small. That’s the reason why I decided to do half English, half Tłı̨chǫ for the new album, so that people can understand what’s happening.
DD: It’s amazing how quickly a language becomes endangered. I was just having dinner with a good friend of mine last night, a former teacher. And twenty years ago she started teaching in Behchoko, which is where Jesse is from, and she was telling me that a lot of kids who were going there, their first language was Tłı̨chǫ. And they were learning English in school. And when she goes to visit there now, there’s almost 0% of those kids who are speaking Tłı̨chǫ as their first language. You know, that’s a short amount of time for a language that’s been around for ages.
CS: The North is a big theme for Digawolf. What does the Canadian North mean to you?
DD: To me, being here in the capital city, Yellowknife, it’s really an amalgamation of cultures. You see everything up here. And yet, you’re in this city which is surrounded by nothing but nature. So I think there’s a form of camaraderie with being in the North. Whether you’re someone like myself who moved here 15 years ago, or whether you’re someone like Jesse, who’s been here his entire life, we just share the novelty of what it is here in the North, where things are just a little bit different than everywhere else.
JJ: Well, first and foremost, when I think of the North, it’s family. Most of my family members are living in my home town and they’re still living there. I try to see why people would come up to look at the Northern Lights, but I can’t seem to understand or see beyond that. I just see family. I see a sort of small town mentality, too. Once you leave your hometown and you come back 20, 30, or 50 years, they still remember you. They still call you by a baby nickname, or something that happened to you when you were a child.
CS: The song The Trapper is really powerful. Jesse, you sing about your father and his ability to live off the land according to his traditional knowledge. How have things changed from his generation to yours?
JJ: Drastically, really. In some ways everything has changed. In other ways, nothing has changed. There’s a contrast between the North and the South. For some places, like on the Six Nations reserve in Ontario, people can’t just leave their house and walk 15 minutes and pick up where their father or grandfather left off in terms of trapping and hunting. You can do that here, but it’s so remote that if you leave, you could die!
There’s a huge contrast as well, especially with the new world here, or the new world in general. You have this new world that’s thrusting forward, while the old one is starting to be left behind. And in between there are those that can’t survive in this new world, and yet they cannot live off the old world either. So you have this huge, growing gap of new versus old technology. So you have this in between where sometimes the only employment income, if you will, is either Canadian welfare payments or whatever menial jobs you can find. Or, you, know, essentially living on the streets.
So for me The Trapper is a song about one of those extreme views, because I was looking at it through my father’s eyes, through his view and where he came from. If he was still alive today, would he be still trapping? Or would he try to adapt to this new world? It’s hard to say. I was just trying to write that song though his eyes, his experience, his views, probably this is what he would have been. Probably lining up at a homeless shelter for soup.
CS: What do you want to say beyond Canada’s borders about what it is to make music in the North?
JJ: For myself, and I can only speak for myself, it’s about the language. Language is important – to preserve it, to use it, to pass it on. Hopefully some day down the road somebody will be listening to a song of ours and wonder, what’s he singing about? So, hopefully there will be some translator who can translate that for them. I want to inspire other people to use their language in whatever form or medium they like. As of right now, we’re in a Rock’n’Roll band singing in Tłı̨chǫ.
DD: I too think that language preservation is up front all the time. And I think that what’s cool about us as a band, is that we’re representing three different cultures. We have Tłı̨chǫ with Jesse, with TJ it’s Chipewyan, and then I’m just the typical Caucasian guy. But I think that what we do together is mutually appreciate what we each bring to the table, that’s our music. It’s almost like a standard Canadian way to be. It’s multiculturalism at its best, showing what it is to get along – most of the time anyways.
Want to hear more Digawolf? Stream their latest tracks below...